(By Ray D.)
Just a week before her scheduled trip to the United States, SPIEGEL ONLINE published an interview (extracts in English) with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not surprisingly, the opening foreign policy questions addressed German-American relations. And quite interestingly, Germany's first woman Chancellor clearly went against the grain of SPIEGEL's opening line of questioning. Note the assumptions inherent in the publication's first question:
"SPIEGEL: There has been considerable harmony on the foreign policy front, which is disconcerting to many because that's exactly where the differences were once most salient. The relationship with the United States remains distanced, while that with Russia is amiable. Where do you see differences with the SPD?"
So the journalist's premise is that German-American relations remain "distanced" while German-Russian relations are "amiable." Could we interpret that as bias?
And guess what? Chancellor Merkel clearly does not buy into SPIEGEL's America-hostile viewpoint. She makes that very clear with the following responses:
"SPIEGEL: In the past, your party in particular emphasized the German-American friendship. Now you're just talking about relations. A deliberate downgrade?
Merkel: Oh, please! I can just as well call it "friendship." The German-American friendship! Is that better? We're splitting hairs here. I want to improve the quality and substance of the German-American relationship.
SPIEGEL: Does the word friendship also describe the German-Russian relationship?
Merkel: It's more of a strategic partnership. I believe that we do not share as many values with Russia yet as we do with the United States. On the other hand, we have a strong interest in Russia developing in a reasonable direction."
It would seem that German-American relations are far more "amiable" in the eyes of the German Chancellor than German-Russian relations. That must have come as quite a rude awakening for the staff and editors of SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Merkel Critical on Guantanamo - Calls for Dialog
As the interview proceeds, however, the new German Chancellor also makes it clear that she does have her differences with the Bush administration, particularly on the issue of Guantanamo:
"SPIEGEL: In the interest of threat prevention, can German officials be sent to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay to interrogate detainees?
Merkel: An institution like Guantanamo in its present form cannot and must not exist in the long term. We must find different ways of dealing with prisoners. As far as I'm concerned there's no question about that.
SPIEGEL: Will you address Guantanamo with President Bush?
Merkel: We will certainly talk about the whole issue of combating terrorism. (...)"
One interesting point here: Despite her criticism of Guantanamo, Ms. Merkel is clearly not interested in exploiting anti-American sentiment for political gain. She points out that the German-American relationship should be based on an open willingness to "always discuss all issues" and work through disagreements. And let's be honest: Germany and the United States have never completely agreed on absolutely every issue. The important question has always been how the two nations have dealt with their differences and dealt with one another. And Ms. Merkel's administration represents a decided shift away from the frequent exploitation of German war fears and anti-American resentments that marked her predecessor's administration and unfortunately continue to mark the German media.
For quite some time now, leading thinkers including Jeffrey Gedmin have been calling for a transatlantic dialog on international law in an age of global terrorism. Gedmin writes:
"It all distracts dangerously from a more serious debate about how we fight the war on terror. Critics argue that the United States cannot have carte blanche to do whatever it wants in Guantanamo. The Bush administration says, Read the Geneva Convention—it does not apply to Al Qaeda prisoners. Both are right. Why does it take so long to get to the inevitable: the development of international law to meet the needs of the current era. We have done this before. That's how we got the Geneva Conventions. Now we need laws that apply to combatants who do not wear a uniform, who hide among civilians and who deliberately target unarmed innocents. These are not the criminals our domestic judicial systems or the international law have been equipped to deal with."
But for far too long, Europe's elites stood on the sidelines, content to morally condemn the United States while refusing to engage the world's only superpower in a meaningful discussion on the application and adaptation of international law in an age of international terrorism. And make no mistake, bashing the United States has unfortunately proven to be a highly profitable activity, both financially and politically, in many parts of Europe. Gerhard Schroeder's re-election in 2002, Michael Moore's book sales and Der Spiegel's covers certainly prove that.
So it is about time that both nations determined to sit down and civilly discuss the issue in an atmosphere of true partnership and even friendship. The time for exploitation and political posturing is hopefully over. An opportunity for transatlantic healing has arrived. Schroeder is off building a pipeline with Putin and Chirac may also soon be gone. The Bush administration can and should engage in an open and meaningful discussion with the new Merkel administration on how to deal with international terrorism but also on all other issues of relevance and importance to German-American relations. As the new Chancellor herself made clear:
"(...) But it's also important to me, and I'll make this clear during my visit, that our relationship with the United States is not reduced to questions of fighting terrorism and the Iraq war. German-American relations were so good for so many years because they extended deeply into the normal lives of people."
Ms. Merkel has taken an important first step. As we pointed out at the beginning of this posting, she has largely refused to buy into the German media's negative assumptions about German-American relations. Next week's visit to the White House should be an interesting one. Stay tuned...
Endnote: Check out this excellent piece by Victor Davis Hanson, entitled "A Letter to the Europeans: Cry the Beloved Continent."
Update: Excerpt from the Daily Press Briefing (Jan. 9, 2006) at the State Department with spokesman Sean McCormack:
QUESTION: The German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview published this weekend that Guantanamo prison shouldn't exist and --
MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not sure that's exactly what she said, but look --
QUESTION: Should not continue to exist like that in the long term, she says.
MR. MCCORMACK: I think everybody hopes we get to a point where we don't need facilities like this, but that is -- we are not at that point. Guantanamo serves a purpose and it's there for a reason. It keeps people who are very dangerous away from civilized society. Make no mistake about it; if these people were released, they would be right back in the fight. We've seen instances of that before. There is a legal process that is in place to review their -- the circumstances of their detainment. There is a -- the ability of the International Red Cross to have a 24-hour-a-day presence there. But Guantanamo Bay serves a purpose.
Update: Erik links to John Vinocur's take on Merkel.